The Blue Of Distance

Feeling blue is defined as being sad or unhappy but I believe that those terms barely scratch the surface of an emotional state that runs much deeper than sadness or unhappiness.

Being blue is the angst of uncertainty that arises when you feel lost somewhere between the bliss of fully trusting yourself and/or a higher power outside of yourself and the almost inescapable grip of fear that comes from not understanding why something has happened or not knowing what is to come in the future.

The Blue Of Distance Catherine Opie 2008Catherine Opie, The Blue of Distance, 2008, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, England

It is the fodder of self-help books, therapist advice, and spiritual teachings.  An idea I have turned over and over in my mind but have never felt satisfied with the results when I tried to put words to what I was thinking but recently I stumbled upon four essays by Rebecca Solnit that capture this idea with powerful prose.

In her essays each titled “The Blue of Distance.” the two main themes are 1.) that we are all lost yet exactly where we are meant to be and 2.) the color blue.  Solnit writes about being lost both in the world around us and the world within us is always coming back to blue as a color, as memory, and as artistic symbolism; all representing the gap between here and there.

Here is an excerpt via NEA Writer’s Corner that will give you a taste of her creative nonfiction piece “The Blue of Distance”:

The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water. Water is colorless, shallow water appears to be the color of whatever lies underneath it, but deep water is full of this scattered light, the purer the water the deeper the blue. The sky is blue for the same reason, but the blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue at the farthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance. This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue.

The Blue Of Distance Catherine Opie 2008Catherine Opie, The Blue of Distance, 2008, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, England 

For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go. For the blue is not in the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains. “Longing,” says the poet Robert Hass, “because desire is full of endless distances.” Blue is the color of longing for the distances you never arrive in, for the blue world.

We treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and the sensation of desire, though often it is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between with the blue of longing. I wonder sometimes whether with a slight adjustment of perspective it could be cherished as a sensation on its own terms, since it is as inherent to the human condition as blue is to distance? If you can look across the distance without wanting to close it up, if you can own your longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue that can never be possessed? For something of this longing will, like the blue of distance, only be relocated, not assuaged, by acquisition and arrival, just as the mountains cease to be blue when you arrive among them and the blue instead tints the next beyond. Somewhere in this is the mystery of why tragedies are more beautiful than comedies and why we take a huge pleasure in the sadness of certain songs and stories. Something is always far away.

Country music is blue, Solnit says, because of the longing that produces its twang. So, too, is the color invented by abstract expressionist Yves Klein, who once put on a show featuring “11 blue paintings, each featureless, each the same size, each with a different price.”

Yves Klein Blue Nouveau Realism

Through her examinations, Solnit comments on the fear of not knowing where we are and the need for exploring, for getting lost in order to find ourself and discover the essence of our being.

“The Blue of Distance” essays are included in Solnit’s book “A Field Guide to Getting Lost.”  The book itself meanders along different paths from explorers, endangered species and urban ruins to grandmothers, country music and Vertigo but it was her commentary on blue that most spoke to me.

I was curious as to why these identically named pieces were placed in between each of the five chapters of her book and I found my answer in an interview Sonit did with the Atlantic magazine:

This book was more improvisational than usual. It was actually written in pieces, although the pieces ended up fitting together really nicely. Then my editor said the book was lovely but too short, and did I have anything I wanted to add? It had a clear beginning and a clear end, so you couldn’t just tack something on. So I wrote the “Blue of Distance” chapters, which I ended up thinking were very valuable additions just for kind of “cooling down” the book in some ways. The other chapters are very personal—people die and go mad and suffer, that sort of thing. “The Blue of Distance” chapters, I think, are happily impersonal, like the palate cleansers between courses.

How humbling to discover that the parts of the book that I enjoyed most, the ones that capture so much of what I had not been able to express myself were an afterthought.  At the same time I’m certainly glad that the rest of the book was “lovely but too short” and left room for the “Blue of Distance” chapters.

The Blue Of Distance Rebecca Solnit
Learn more bout Rebecca Solnit: San Francisco writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit is the author of thirteen books about art, landscape, community, ecology, politics, hope, and memory. Photo by Jim Herrington